Heads in the cloud

Heads in the cloud

Summary: Could the spread of the cloud force Australian ISPs to step away from usage-based models and finally offer real, unlimited broadband packages with no hard limits? Not very likely.

TOPICS: Google, Telcos

My biggest project this year has been to scan, once and for all, hundreds of rolls of film negatives spanning the past 15 years of my life. More than 6500 pictures and 150GB of TIF files later, I am tantalisingly near the end (which will come when I figure out how to tag them all, but that's another story).

film roll

(Credit: My old camera by Sanja Gjenero, Royalty free)

In the more immediate term, however, I have been considering how I might go about backing up such a massive amount of data, next to which my more conventional array of everyday files pales into insignificance. My short-term solution has been to copy the entire directory to an external drive, theory being that storing documents on two or three mechanical and therefore inherently unreliable devices is better than storing them on one.

With every vendor and his dog all talking about cloud computing these days, however, I have pondered more than once how I might benefit from this, which is apparently the next wave in computing. After all, the idea of getting a regular backup that's stored offsite, somewhere where it is looked after by people whose livelihoods depend on keeping my data alive, has a certain appeal to it.

But then I consider the results of projects like this — and my next one, which will involve transferring over 1TB of data from 100 videotapes before they crumble to the sands of time — and wonder whether cloud computing can really work as envisioned by Microsoft (which recently launched its Azure strategy), Google (which is all about the cloud), Amazon (whose S3 storage service provides virtually limitless storage) and nearly every other vendor, if the steady flow of press releases into my inbox is to be believed.

Consumer-focused backup services like Mozy, which automatically stores your documents in a cloud that happens to run on parent company EMC's massive storage arrays, are established and running well. But when I chatted with EMC product marketing manager Shane Moore recently about the company's Atmos cloud offering, I had another objective: to figure out how my nightmarishly large collection of photos, which I suspect isn't without precedent in the greater world out there, might be reconciled with the reality of cloud computing — and the woe that is Australian broadband.

With just 10GB of peak bandwidth per month, a full, real-time backup to the cloud would take up 15 months' worth of bandwidth at an equivalent cost of around $750 — and that's just hypothetically speaking, since speed limiting after the 10GB limit would stretch the timeframe out to years.

Obviously, this won't work. So I asked Moore how companies like EMC can throw their hats into the cloud computing ring when the model's viability depends on basically ignoring the fiscal realities of today's broadband (or, perhaps, on just taking fewer pictures than I do).

He conceded that the amount of data was not insignificant, pointing out that Mozy lets subscribers mail in a USB drive (a $150 expenditure in my case by the time shipping is factored in), where they'll copy the data and set up an account. Subsequent incremental backups will be dealt with by the Mozy software, keeping me up to date all the time.

Or will it? Sneakernet may avoid the initial, impossible economics I described above, but currently spruiked visions of cloud storage — the first practical, real-world application for cloud computing — depend heavily on a system's being always connected, and would seem to involve the transfer of an absolute flood of data whenever a large number of changes are made.

"Most people don't change their data that frequently", you will probably say, and you're probably right. But if my cloud computing backup solution works like I understand Apple's Time Machine backup works — copying changed files at regular intervals — I can only shudder to think of the bandwidth charges as my 10MB TIF files are transferred into the cloud each time I rename one of them (a common occurrence now that I'm trying to organise and tag my scanned images).

The disconnect between Australian telcos' rigid usage policies and the vision of the world's IT leaders is real and significant

If it's a bit smarter than that and only transfers the changed bits, well, that might work a bit better. But you see my point.

Cloud computing is an unprecedented opportunity for IT companies to build out a whole new charging model for storage, applications, and services. For most of us, it will create real value in interesting ways: Atmos, for example, builds on EMC's long pedigree in information lifecycle management to allow cloud computing customers to store — and index — their information according to rules they should be setting internally but usually don't.

Other vendors are looking to "the cloud" to deliver individual applications, virtual servers, entire Windows and Linux desktops that are accessible wherever an employee goes. The possibilities are endless, and they all depend on a good telecommunications infrastructure with far more generous data charging structures than Australia currently enjoys.

Could the spread of the cloud force Australian ISPs to step away from usage-based models and finally offer real, unlimited broadband packages with no hard limits? Not very likely — especially since growing use of cloud computing services will significantly boost traffic over intercontinental fibre-optic links.

Given this reality, ISPs may do well to start positioning themselves in the cloud computing space — building mirrors that let them replicate cloud data on their own local networks, then offer access to that data for free in the same way that many ISPs currently offer uncharged access to on-network video content.

Whether or not these changes will be in place in time to help with my image glut, I can't say, although I would tend towards the 'not bloody likely' end of the scale.

But, as with all things, the disconnect between Australian telecommunications' rigid usage policies and the vision of the world's IT leaders is real and significant — and, as Steve Ballmer intimated during his recent visit, plotting a path to the clouds may require some very real compromises all around.

Is cloud computing genuinely useful and exciting, or is it just a cash grab by big IT players? Do you see yourself using it?

Topics: Google, Telcos


Australia’s first-world economy relies on first-rate IT and telecommunications innovation. David Braue, an award-winning IT journalist and former Macworld editor, covers its challenges, successes and lessons learned as it uses ICT to assert its leadership in the developing Asia-Pacific region – and strengthen its reputation on the world stage.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Plain fact: too much data

    The cloud should only be seen as one of the mirrored repositories for data. As the article states, it is the timely synchronisation that is the real issue.

    Incremental backups would need to use some partial file hash code smarts to reduce the synchronisation communication, but the whole thing is still going to be massive after every photo shoot session.

    I think that there needs to be some better local (as in offsite, but nearby) solution to massive storage. With 10Mbit and rising cameras getting cheap, data cannot just be shuffled over email capacity channels ad nauseum. Spam is one thing, but TBs of photos that rarely get viewed is just as crazy.

    Sounds like there is an opportunity for a real killer app that brings the photo data blitz under control.
  • Cloud

    I don't think there's any doubt that cloud computing is already here and expanding fast. As these solutions are developed and rolled out in technology mature countries (such as US) no thought is given to countires that do not have the technology to support it. As cloud solutions mature, other channels will become increasingly expensive and harder to support.

    It's up to Australia to ensure it is ready to make use of this technology. If we continue to be hamstrung by badwidth issues (availability and cost) then all our information costs will increase and our capability to participate in global business will fall.
  • Security?

    I dont like the idea of having my life-information stored, where unscrupelous organisation may have access to it.

    I agree to be able to back up my business and private info out of house is a good idea. However, put it on a external harddrive and take that to another location is for me more secure, that putting it on somebody else's drive.
  • I backup 360 GB of data without any problems

    I use Carbonite and 360 GB, including 260 GB of photos is backed up up using my iiNet broadband. Its transparent to me and doesn't noticeably interfere with other traffic. I can select the files or folders or drives I want backed up. Each file is tagged to show its backup status.

    The initial backup took several months to complete but I have used the service for a year and maintaining the backup up-to-date has not been a problem.

    There is a mechanism to ensure that frequently changing files are only backed up once each day. Previous versions of files are maintained in the backup.

    iiNet does not have any upload limits.

    I have no idea where the data is stored and I pay a modest annual fee for the service. The backup is encrypted and I am not concerned about privacy.

    The system works fine.
  • JungleDisk is the way to go

    JungleDisk is clearly the way for you to go here. It's cheap at $20ish forever.

    You mention using up your ISP limits, you'll be UPLOADING don't forget, most ISPs don't count the uploads in their plans (except optus).

    Your last point of renaming a file, it can be done with JungleDisk without having to re-upload the file, they do it remotely transparently to you.